Attorney Fees and Costs
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
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Choosing to hire a lawyer to represent you can bring you the intense advocacy, legal expertise, and litigation experience you need to win your case. Like all professional services, however, an attorney’s legal help likely will not be free. Most lawyers offer a range of fee payment options so clients can find the best fit for their budget, and all lawyers have fee agreements that inform clients of any additional costs up front.
Factors Affecting Attorney Fees
Lawyers generally can choose how much to charge clients. The vast majority of states simply require an attorney’s rates to be reasonable, with no explicit maximum dollar amount. Many factors affect how an attorney sets his or her rates, such as:
- The lawyer’s experience or specialization in the area of law
- The complexity of the case
- The number of hours the lawyer expects to work on the case
- The number of additional lawyers or support staff that the lawyer will need to adequately represent the client
Depending on the case, rates are often negotiable, usually by limiting the lawyer’s responsibility for certain aspects of the case that the client could do on his own or that can be done by another attorney for cheaper. Also, clients can take proactive steps to reduce legal costs.
Types of Fee Arrangements
Generally, there three types of arrangements that a lawyer can offer in order to find the most affordable plan for the client. A lawyer may charge an hourly rate, work on contingency, or charge a fixed fee.
Like many other professionals ranging from auto mechanics to personal trainers, lawyers often will charge an hourly rate for the work they perform. This hourly rate may change depending on the task; for example, a lawyer may charge less for conducting legal research but charge more for interviewing witnesses. Additionally, lawyers charging by the hour may ask their clients for a retainer, where the client pays for a certain number of hours in advance.
Contingent fees are attorney fees based on results. Generally, the client will not have to pay the lawyer unless the client wins the case. A typical contingency agreement will allow the lawyer to keep one-third of the money damages a client receives upon winning the case. If the lawyer loses the case, the client would not have to pay the lawyer anything. Most states do not allow contingency fee agreements for certain cases, such as criminal cases or divorces.
Finally, a lawyer may offer the client a fixed fee for whatever legal work needs to be done. Under a fixed fee agreement, the client pays a set amount regardless of how many hours the attorney works on the case and regardless of the outcome. This type of agreement is often the most affordable and usually used for standard, simple legal issues, such as expunging a criminal record or drafting a will.
Additional Costs and Expenses
Like auto mechanics who charge for parts and labor, attorneys may charge clients for the lawyer’s personal work on a case and for any expenses or costs. Typical additional costs include:
- Filing fees for filing documents with the court
- Travel expenses
- Mailing postage
- Costs of serving court papers on opposing parties
Lawyers working on contingency or providing free legal services may still ask for reimbursement for additional costs and expenses, since these charges would otherwise come out of the attorney’s pocket.
Fee Agreement Contracts
Regardless of the type of fee and how much an attorney charges, virtually all lawyers will sign a fee agreement with each new client. A fee agreement is a contract that spells out how an attorney’s fee will be paid, how much the rate is, and the price of the additional costs and expenses. A good fee agreement will make all of the expectations clear so that the lawyer knows what work the client expects, and client knows all of the costs up front.
Like any bill that a person may receive, an attorney’s invoice may not be accurate or may include costs that the client did not expect to pay. When disputes arise, most states offer a fee arbitration program specifically designed to help clients resolve disputed fees with their attorneys. Contact your state’s bar association if you wish to find out about fee resolution programs.
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